Light – a Sermon for Candlemas
February 1, 2009
(Luke 2, 22-40)
Simeon praised God and said:
“My eyes have seen your salvation – a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people, Israel.”
Light is a powerful symbol – one used not only in Christianity and Judaism, but in all the world’s great religions.
It is a powerful symbol because of the many positive associations it conveys. Light shows us the way: we need a torch to help us find the right way in the dark or car headlights and street lights to illuminate the roads.
Light helps us to find what we have lost: when you have mislaid or dropped something, often it is only when you are able to shine a light on the place that it is found.
Light can also reveal what is wrong; it shows up dirt and damage clearly; think of a doctor or dentist using a small bright light to look in your ear, or down your throat, or at your teeth, to see what needs treatment. Then, sometimes, light and heat is used to help the process of sterilisation and healing.
Light is important for life and growth. The sun works to promote growth; we human imitate that when we use artificial light to bring on plants early, or keep them going through the winter.
Light is also important to us as a warning. We can think of the revolving light of a lighthouse, keeping ships away from dangerous rocks and sandbanks; or of the flashing lights on emergency vehicles, or around road works; or the warning lights on a broken down car, and the guiding cats eyes in the middle of the road, warning of bends.
Light also is a symbol of celebration – fireworks (being used more and more, all the year round, now, to mark special occasions ); the coloured lights we put up at festivals, especially Christmas; and the candles on birthday cakes.
Because of all these associations, we use light to speak of Jesus. John tells us that he is the Light of the World, the true light who illuminates every human being at their birth.
Through the incidents, sayings and parables of the Gospels, we learn that Jesus is the light who can guide us to the truth about God, and the right path of life. We learn that his is the light that will help us to find those who are lost. We understand that his life is like the powerful light which shows up what is wrong and needs treatment ( as Simeon prophesied ); and his life is also a warning of the dangers that surround our journey of faith.
But his is also a light that brings us warmth and growth, the Sun of Righteousness; and, to those who recognise the light, he is a sign of celebration, hope, reconciliation and joy.
In this technological age, we could just as well use an electric light to stand for Jesus; but we continue to use candles. Why?
I think it is because, unlike a beam of electric light, the candle flame seems alive. It moves, flickers, changes; it is affected by the atmosphere around it, growing bigger or fading according to the amount of air that is available. In that respect it is like a human being, vulnerable to its environment; and as the writer to the Hebrews emphasises, Jesus was able to be our Saviour precisely because he too was subject to the forces of nature, as we are.
The candle flame is a proper symbol for the little people – the ones who no-one takes much notice of. They are the sort of people who figure large in the Candlemas story: Joseph and Mary, the humble parents from the countryside, going to perform their religious duties in the mighty Temple, symbol of the power and prestige of their religion; and Simeon and Anna, representatives of the old and often disregarded members of society. You cannot disregard the power of an electric searchlight; but like a human being, a candle is vulnerable. If done violence to, it can be snuffed out.
And that possibility is part of the Candlemas story too. As well as the joyful associations, candles are also a symbol of more sombre things. They are light as a sign of our hope for peace amid the darkness of conflict. They are lit to express our fervent prayer for those who are ill. They are lit to remember those who have died.
So, as we hold our lit candles at Candlemas, we come to a turning point in our symbolic journey through the Christian year. We turn from contemplating the coming of the light into the world at Christmas, the coming that was made possible through the co-operation of the little people like Mary and Joseph, and was proclaimed by the little people, like the shepherds and Simeon and Anna.
We turn from the light towards the darkness: the darkness that Simeon spoke of when he warned Mary of the pain that was to come, like a sword piercing her heart; and when he spoke of the judgement and the fall of many that would be precipitated by Jesus’ presence. The darkness we represent in the church’s calendar by the sombre furnishings and bare flower stands of Lent. The darkness of temptation and opposition, of betrayal , torture and death, represented by the absence of colour and of candles on Good Friday.
But, as Christians, we do not lose sight of the light as we make that turn. Light is always seen more clearly against the darkness, and as we enter the darkest season of the Christian year, the light of Christ continues to guide us. As John assures us in the Prologue to his gospel: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. We are people of the resurrection, and we know that, beyond the darkness of Good Friday comes the glorious light of Easter, when we shall rekindle the lights extinguished on Maundy Thursday from the great light of the Paschal Candle.
When we are baptised, we are signed with the cross, and we are also handed a small candle, the symbol of the light of Christ. We commit ourselves then to following that light all our days.
Each time we hold a lighted candle in our hands, or see a light in the darkness, we have an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to following the light, and to sharing the light with the world. So, as we turn from the lights of Christmas to the lights of Easter, let us ask God to help us in that commitment:
Eternal God, whose Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, is proclaimed as the Light of the World; may your people, guided, warned and warmed by the light of your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that you may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.